Each year two players, one from the American League and one from the National League, are honored as Comeback Player of the Year.
Whether the player is returning from injury, illness, or ineffectiveness, each winner has overcome a hurdle of some sort and reversed their fortunes from the previous year.
As the season winds down, a few candidates in each league have separated themselves from the pack.
The AL crop of players this year could probably include the entire Boston Red Sox lineup and rotation, but John Lackey, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shane Victorino have put themselves ahead of the pack.
Former Red Sox Victor Martinez returned to the Tigers after missing all of 2012 – and picked up where he left off with the bat. And of course Mariano Rivera, after missing most of last season, decided to have an elite season on his way into retirement.
After the 2012 season, despite not throwing a single pitch, John Lackey was not a popular man in New England. Saying that Lackey struggled since arriving in Boston (ERAs of 4.40 in 2010 and 6.41 in 2011) would be an understatement. Even factoring in his injury, which ultimately required Tommy John surgery, 2013 was expected to be a return to 2008-2009 Lackey.
That wouldn’t do for the big right hander. Lackey is 9-12 due to bad luck in terms of run support, but his 3.56 ERA is his best mark since 2007. Lackey is striking out batters at a higher rate (7.6 K/9) than any year since 2006 and is issuing walks at the lowest rate (1.9 BB/9) of his career.
Ellsbury entered 2012 with expectations running high. His MVP caliber season the year before looked like his entrance into superstardom. But a fluke shoulder injury resulting from a collision with Reid Brignac altered his season considerably. Even when he took the field, his performance was disappointing.
Turn the calendar to 2013 and Ellsbury was back to his old tricks: he’s leading the league in steals with 52, hitting .299/.355/.424, and playing excellent defense in center field. As a free agent to be, the timing is perfect for him in terms of negotiations. The one thing not going his way: Ellsbury has been sidelined since Sept. 5 with an injured foot.
Shane Victorino looked bad in 2012. His .255/.321/.383 combined performance with the Phillies and Dodgers was the worst of his career. When the Red Sox handed him a 3-year, $39-million deal in the offseason, there were worries that the Sox had signed a free agent after a down year in his early 30s who might not bounce back.
Once again, the Red Sox got everything they expected, and more, from their player. Victorino entered play Tuesday hitting .294/.352/.454 with 21 steals and 14 home runs. He’s missed some time with some small injuries and has been battling a sore hamstring limiting his ability to switch-hit, but it hasn’t slowed him down.
Victor Martinez missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL and with Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera already on the team, looked like he might be the odd man out while fighting for playing time because he would essentially be limited to DH. After a big first year with the Tigers in 2011, .330/.380/.470, it was an open question how Martinez would bounce back.
Through May 31 the former catcher had an OPS under .600. It looked like Martinez would be in store for a disappointing season. He had other plans: a .334/.387/.473 line since June 1 would be enough to raise his batting average to .298 entering play on September 17. In May, a .300 batting average for the season looked unlikely, now, it is within reach.
What can you really say about Mariano Rivera? After missing most of the 2012 season he’s come back for a retirement tour pitching better than many ever do at their peak. His 2.30 ERA is the sixth worst of his career. He made his thirteenth All Star Game. And he has 43 saves. It’s like he didn’t miss any time at all.
The NL has fewer major comeback stories. Some that were expected, like the return of Tim Lincecum, didn’t occur as planned, but there are a couple guys who stand out.
Francisco Liriano has had a strange career. He was dominant during his rookie campaign in 2006, teaming up with Johan Santana at the top of the Twins rotation before succumbing to Tommy John surgery. Liriano wasn’t himself again until 2010, but then fell apart in 2011 and 2012.
When he joined the Pirates over the winter it looked like a good depth move for a team looking for veteran innings, and a move to the NL can do wonders for a pitcher. Liriano took that as a challenge and has posted the second best ERA of his career, 2.92, has struck out a batter per inning, and after two years of 5.0 BB/9 has scaled that down to a more reasonable 3.6.
Troy Tulowitzki played in just 47 games in 2012 and wasn’t at his best when he was on the field. Losing a player like Tulo is tough for any team, but for the Rockies, losing half of the very productive Tulo-CarGo tandem was brutal.
Healthy again, Tulowitzki has hit .315/.388/.539 entering September 17. While the Rockies are currently in last place, they are part of essentially a three-way tie for third in the NL West with the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants. The speed isn’t there anymore, Tulo has just one steal, 22 home runs by a Gold Glove shortstop is always a nice thing to have.
Looking forward, who might headline this list next year?
Could it be a pair of Angels, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and a third baseman looking to rebuild his value on a one-year deal in Chase Headley? Will an offseason cure C.C. Sabathia of his troubles this season?
It’s tough to predict MVPs ahead of time but Comeback Player of the Year might be just as tough, even with the head start of knowing who performed poorly.